the ratings game

Kurt Sutter, Adam Pally, and More Share Their TV-Ratings Anxiety

Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Photos by Getty

The Ratings Game is a weeklong series exploring what the new world of TV ratings means for your favorite shows. Vulture asked Kurt Sutter, Adam Pally, Liz Tigelaar, and more to tell us what the cold weekly judgment of their hearts and souls feels like.  

Jeff Probst, host and executive producer of Survivor
My history with ratings anxiety has an unusual beginning. Survivor premiered in 2000. It was my big break, my first network show, and I didn’t know a thing about television ratings. Our season finale was watched by 52 million people. I had no idea how big a deal that was. So I woke up, saw the ratings, and thought, Ah, cool. Fifty-two million. Total naïveté. It’s akin to flying first-class on your first flight. Over the last 16 years, we’ve been very fortunate to consistently win our Wednesday-night time slot, but every Thursday morning, it is still the same routine. I wake up and wait for that ratings email to come. How’d we do? Are we up? Are we down? Did we win? And despite the fact that, with the new time-shifted viewing habits, the overnight rating has become somewhat irrelevant, I still do it. Every Thursday morning.

I’ve come to have what I think is a healthy relationship with ratings. I know they are ultimately the most important factor in determining whether your show stays on the air, but I also believe you can’t chase a rating.  You have to make creative decisions based on your gut and what you think will work.  Then the ratings tell you if you’re right or not. So no need to wake up early and wait for that email, there’s not much you can do about it anyway.

Thirty seconds later …

In the interest of full disclosure, I should share that the mere process of writing about the topic of ratings has made my stomach turn a little bit. I’ve already thought about this week’s episode of Survivor three times, wondering if it will please our audience. I’ve checked the television schedule to make sure we’re not on against some special event, like, say, the NFL. And I’ve double-checked my email alerts for Thursday. Maybe my relationship with television ratings is not as healthy as I think.

Liz Tigelaar, executive producer of Casual
There are a million wonderful things about writing for Casual on Hulu — the pedigree of the team involved, actors who are game to try anything and can do everything, creative support from our studio and network … and, for the first time, not worrying about ratings. Which, let’s face it, have become overrated. We no longer wake up the morning after we’ve aired frantically refreshing our browsers. We don’t utter the word demo or agonize over the Live+7’s. Gone is the arbitrary ratings roller coaster where a 1.8 means you’re a hit, a 1.6 means you’re on the bubble, and a 1.4 means the CW just put reruns of an unnamed show in your time slot (Hellcats).

I wrote for another unnamed show almost a decade ago (What About Brian?). As chronic underdogs, we were stunned when we got word that in the overnights we’d beaten our biggest competition (Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip). An article came out eviscerating Studio 60’s poor numbers, but took aim at us, too. It said Studio 60 was doing so badly that even the sluggish hold-over What About Brian? had beaten it. Even our victory was framed as our loss. But now things are different. Fuck those ratings, right? Our lives no longer hang in the balance of every tenth of a point. Now we can focus our energy on what’s important: sitting in the writer’s room, talking about bad dates, family dysfunction, failed relationships … and deciding what we’re going to order for lunch. Half our room wants our old standby (Cuvee) while the other half wants something new (Sweetgreen). But before we pull the trigger, we just need to look Sweetgreen up online. Because there’s no way in hell we’re wasting our free lunch order on somewhere that doesn’t have a decent rating.

Adam Pally, actor on Happy Endings and The Mindy Project
I was never scared of ratings, and I’ve gotten my fair share of low ones. Actually, I feel like ratings get a bad rap. I mean, there needs to be some system of identifying what the general public is watching. Movies have box office. Music has the charts. Doctors in New York have that list they publish in New York Magazine every year, the one my dad — Dr. Steven Pally — is dumbfounded he is not on. Instead, what I’ve always been fearful of is how the powers that be (never the creative forces) react to what the ratings showed. A number comes in low, next week a script seems a little different tonally. A number comes in higher the next week, the whole show is moving to a new night. Hold the same number as last week? Suddenly there’s a brand-new guest star coming in: Make that shit work and tweet about it.

But the truth is, technology changed in the last five years. People are watching whatever they want at their leisure, so the whole concept of who was tuning in on what particular night has become obsolete. Shows everyone watched on the same night may have become scarce, but good shows on every night that maybe didn’t appeal to everyone all the time have started to work on a smaller scale. Unfortunately, the networks and studios have not caught up. I’m not on a weekly network show right now, but when I was, the networks were still looking at numbers that were not truly reflecting what their audience was watching. Knee-jerk reactions rolled in, and half-thought-out decisions were made out of fear and panic. Shows were never given the time they needed to jell, or if they were, they were fucked with endlessly. In the desire to find something that everyone would watch at the same time and all the car and movie studios would pay a billion dollars to advertise on, the product was torn to bits. And you just can’t put out good shit that way.

Still, and I can’t stress this enough, I believe in ratings. And I can’t stand that the streaming services won’t give total access to their numbers. It feels like some kind of way to prevent creative entities from knowing their true worth, and forcing them to work for a number that may be below their value. Though I do admire these same services for their short series orders, solid promotion, and hands-off approach, I would like to know just how much Jenji Kohan means to Netflix, ‘cause I’ll tell you right now: Daddy knows that bad bitch is underpaid. End of the day, ratings are not the problem. It’s how the powers that be react to them that will always be far worse.

Kurt Sutter, creator and executive producer of The Bastard Executioner and Sons of Anarchy
I am a storyteller. My job is to share a vision in an engaging and entertaining way. To do that, I need an audience. Ratings are how I measure that audience. Good reviews and awards are wonderful acknowledgements of creativity, but at the end of the day, they don’t mean shit. The size of my viewing circle is how I gauge my effort. That is how I determine whether my story is compelling. Is my audience moved? Are they intrigued? Are they laughing? Do they relate? Am I telling their story? Are the themes powerful? Is the protagonist speaking to them? Are his or her beliefs, needs, and desires relevant? And most importantly, do they want to see more? If I can do all these things, I can sustain and hopefully increase my circle. If I cannot, the circle finds a better story and goes away. Measuring the size of an audience is an imperfect, confusing, and mercurial science, but it is the only formula we have. So we do our best to determine the size of the circle.

I cannot do what I was put here to do without my circle.

Joshua Safran, creator and executive producer of Quantico
Ratings anxiety, for me, has only grown worse with each show I’ve been on, as the marketplace has changed substantially year to year. I grew up as a child reading Variety and remembering how scared I’d be for my favorite shows when they would dip below a 16 rating and 20 share. I remember pacing the block outside the Smash stages at 44 Eagle the morning after the premiere, furiously chain-smoking after a five-year absence, discovering we were DOA at a 1.1. Just two years later, while Quantico is a success (thank you, Live+3’s!), my memory can never register anything other than disappointment for any number that isn’t above an 18. In some ways, that anxiety drives me, forces me to work harder, push farther, dream bigger.

I find I am as nervous today, the Monday morning after episode eight aired, as I was the morning after the premiere. Because in today’s network-television marketplace, there is no such thing as safety. Monday mornings I typically try to keep my head in the game by spending the morning in the writers room without my phone. But around 10:30 a.m., a fog descends that doesn’t lift until the numbers come out. I first start by checking @TVMediaInsights, and then @TVbythenumbers, while on breaks. I don’t care much for spin (no offense, ABC!); I really just care about the number itself. Is our audience hanging on? Did something in the last episode make some viewers leave, or are some people coming back because they’ve heard about something we’ve done? Will this amazing cast and crew still have jobs in four months?

I am equally nervous on Fridays, because that’s when we get our Live+3 numbers. And I always have a number in my head that we have to meet in order for me to feel like we’re going to be okay. So in truth, the anxiety lasts all week. Then you factor in the show airing in multiple countries, and hearing how it’s doing over there daily, and you’ve got a constant state of anxiety that, if I hadn’t worked on Smash, I wouldn’t be equipped to deal with.

The following is a riff on James Joyce’s “The Dead” by Sam Shaw, creator and executive producer of Manhattan
At precisely 8 p.m., the 49-year-old male settled into his easy chair to watch several hours of television programming, just as he had every evening since he’d turned 18. Like his father before him, and his father’s father, stretching back to the dawn of prime time, he was a member of the Key Demographic. The networks relied on him, and so did the brands, to say nothing of the content creators. From Santa Monica to Silver Lake, jittery showrunners would be waiting on the Numbers — numbers only the 49-year-old male, and others like him, could supply. Without him … well, he shuddered to think what might happen to the television landscape. A Geico ad came on and he didn’t fast-forward; he was always interested to find out if he could save 15 percent on his car insurance. In any case, the 49-year-old male didn’t own a DVR. He watched his programming live, as God and AC Nielsen intended. But tonight, for once, the cheeky spokeslizard failed to delight him. He sat in his easy chair, uneasy. In a few hours, the 49-year-old male would turn 50, and who knew what fate awaited when you hit that number. Would the culling be quick and painless, like an LCD pixel burning out? Would some hooded wraith appear on his doorstep, punting him over the River Styx to the island of statistical irrelevance? He’d heard whispers, of course, about a world beyond the demo, a land without Numbers or insurance commercials. An afterlife of premium cable and subscription VOD. Maybe he’d see his father there.

The cold cathode fluorescents of his flat screen pulsed. Was that the creak of jackboots in the stairwell? The 49-year-old male wasn’t ready for his hard cut to black. All these years, he’d thought of himself as a lighthouse keeper, guiding the network’s fleet off the rocks, toward syndication. Somewhere out there, miles from shore, a showrunner had his hand on the tiller, scanning the black horizon for some pinprick of hope, a beacon that might never come. And then what? In the reflection on his screen, he felt he could almost see it, a lonely boat drifting slowly toward some unknown shore. They were, both of them, adrift. Snow was falling on his 60-inch Samsung. It was falling on all 200 channels of his expanded basic-cable package, on the procedurals of CBS, falling softly on the prestige imports of BBC America, and, farther northward, softly falling on the gabled rooftops of HGTV. His soul ached as he watched the snow falling faintly through the U-verse and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the canceled and renewed.

Wendy Mericle, executive producer of Arrow
Being on a fourth-season show like Arrow, you’re dealing with a different kind of ratings anxiety than the all-consuming, sleepless-night variety that comes when you’re working on a younger series. I still remember in season one how the writers’ room would just stop at 5 p.m. on Wednesdays — that’s when the East Coast airing would start, and everyone on the staff would be on edge, 100 percent focused on the numbers. Now Arrow has settled into a pretty constant number — we have an incredibly devoted audience — but the truth is, the anxiety never really goes away. It just changes. In the beginning, we were worried about getting big enough ratings to earn a season two; now we’re worried about holding on to those ratings, and more importantly, holding the audience’s interest. No matter how long your show has been on, you always want to be relevant — you want to reward your longtime fans for their loyalty and at the same time try to bring new viewers into the fold. To do that, you have to keep coming up with new stories, cool action sequences you haven’t done before, shocking plot twists, surprising character revelations — and you have to do it in a way that’s fresh and exciting. Whether or not you’re succeeding at this has a huge impact on the future of your show since ratings in the fourth season are sometimes viewed as a bellwether: If you’re holding your numbers, your chances of getting another five years out of the show are much higher. So I definitely still have ratings anxiety, but now we can’t stop the room anymore to obsess over the numbers — we have to keep working to come up with the next big idea.

Kurt Sutter & More Share Their TV-Rating Anxiety